It happens every four years. First, it’s an hour-long special on CNN. Then, a satirical article in The Onion. Next, there are a few “Saturday Night Live” sketches, and late night show appearances. Soon, politics are ingrained in daily forms of entertainment in a constant, overwhelming way.
The past year is no exception to this trend, but the 2016 presidential election has taken this generality to the extreme. The emergence of presidential political entertainment has been swift and resoundingly popular, springing programs like TBS’s “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” and HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” into ratings success.
While talk show rants against political actions—or, to be frank, comments that Donald Trump says—gain steam, so does the niche of an absurdist comedy that attempts to shock viewers in an increasingly out-shockable political landscape.
This summer, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” mocked this need to outperform with the “Hungry For Power Games.” Colbert ambles around the Democratic and Republic National Conventions with stuffed weasel Caligula, named for the first century power-hungry Roman emperor, causing spectacle and drawing to attention himself and his Julius Flickerman persona. Though the bright blue hair and dead weasel deviate from the norm, the two-part series elicits the same surprised laugh that jokes about Trump’s hair or Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails might. It’s taking something serious—the leader and figurehead of our country—and turning it into a reality television competition like CBS’s “Big Brother.” After all, there’s no better way to appeal to the young vote than to replace their Netflix binge for the night.
Voters constantly weigh in on the candidates that get to stick around, but the qualities that they use to decide—whether it’s likability, drama, belief compatibility, name recognition or even pure chance—are unpredictable and continually shifting.
This question has been taken to task by many comedians. In her Comedy Central show “Not Safe with Nikki Glaser,” Nikki Glaser questions the sexist and uninformed ideals presented by some Trump supporters to the streets of a Trump rally in an effort to “Make America Horny Again,” and political groupWeAreChange dissected the lack of voter cognizance in Clinton’s supporters in a video interviewing citizens along a boardwalk that garnered almost 250,000 views. Jimmy Kimmel and Clinton even teamed up to prove Clinton’s health on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” by taking her pulse and asking her to open a jar of pickles.
In many ways, this political focus on entertainment is unsurprising. After all, Trump has spent much of the past two decades on Miss USA pageants and NBC’s “The Apprentice.” Trump knows how to leverage media attention and how to mold his public persona as a strong businessman. And Clinton, long in the spotlight, has also been exploring alternate entrances into media, like her recent appearance on Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis.” With a deadpan face, she and Galifianakis exchange wit and jokes—“What’s the best way to reach you? Email?” Galifianakis asks—in such a radically different setting than most voters see Clinton, perhaps part of how it has garnered a show record-breaking 12 million views on YouTube in less than a month. Even as long as a year ago in her “Saturday Night Live” monologue, Amy Schumer appealed to Clinton’s personableness joking, “Who’s hazing Hillary Clinton? Like a rail shot of tequila, like ‘Take a shot, you b—-.’ Who’s doing that?”
But beyond the humor, there’s something different about this election cycle. For the past year, it often seems that politicians have brought the humor, and comedians have brought the political rhetoric.
Infusing jokes with scathing policy discussion, Bee’s and Oliver’s tirades—in addition to Jon Stewart’s brief return to late night for a Trump rebuke—are just the tip of the iceberg in bringing political opinion to the public.
In one of my favorite videos of the summer, the “Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj criticized Congress’s handling of gun control at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner. In a well-researched and impeccably written speech pleading for greater gun control legislation, Minhaj asked in a desperate seriousness, “The NRA has given $3.7 million to Congress…If $3.7 million can buy political influence to take lives, if we raise $4 million, would you guys take that to save lives?” In a long written piece, “Parks and Recreation” and “Master of None” actor and showrunner Aziz Ansari chipped into the political discussion, publishing a chilling and searing op-ed in the New York Times on how Trump’s political rhetoric affects the safety and well-being of Muslim-Americans.
Even amiable Jimmy Fallon came under fire when Samantha Bee delivered an intense denunciation of NBC and Fallon for hosting Trump in a lighthearted interview in which Fallon lofted some softball election questions. Not covered in the interview was anything of platform or issue substance, relating to, Bee said, the network executives’ immunity from the consequences of divisive and discriminatory remarks by Trump. The polarizing tendency of a figure like Trump puts an incredible amount of pressure on entertainment to push political agendas and proves once and for all that nothing—least of all comedy—can exist in a void without political tensions.
Perhaps these icons of entertainment have so much weight in influencing public opinion because they have that core relatability, especially to a younger generation, that politicians spend hundreds of thousands of dollars coveting. You want to grab a beer with Fallon; when Oliver gets angry, you can’t help but feel angered yourself. And with exponentially growing television programming and media outlets, everyone, even third-party supporters, have someone at the helm of entertainment and media to link to political candidates or specific issues.
What suffers in the wake of this conflation with media as a representation of policy? Well, some would argue, the policy itself. In debates, the cross fire of “he said, she said” and attention-grabbing antics, real deliberation of the problems this country faces are slowly pushed to the back. It’s not the moderators’ fault; it’s not the networks’ fault; it’s not even the candidates’ fault, to a large extent. The campaign and network strategies are both concerned with the one demographic that holds their fate at the end of the day: voters.
Before blame is assigned, it’s important to break down that programs do see spikes in viewers when they have a political guest or lampoon a politician, and politicians do see increased engagement with their populace when they make a contentious statement or put showmanship before logistics. If the political arena is a game show, can Clinton and Trump be blamed for playing the game?